As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world … I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me. John 17
John 17 is a beloved passage in the ecumenical movement. While this text may inspire and guide us when Mennonites relate to Pentecostals or when evangelicals work with Catholics, it seems even more compelling when relating to brothers and sisters in the same fellowship. John 17 is relevant for both interchurch and intra-church relations.
In my experience John 17 is not often quoted among Mennonites. When was the last time you heard a sermon on this text?
Longtime Mennonite missionaries and teachers, Alan and Eleanor Kreider, recently wrote a poignant article about being challenged to pray with Jesus for unity among Christian brothers and sisters. They shared how they came to awareness that they had long overlooked this prayer which is so crucial to Jesus. Three times Jesus prays to the Father that his disciples “may all be one” – and he prays this for the credibility of his Father’s mission in the world.
Mennonites, like all Protestant Christians, are children of splits. We have not developed a compelling theological conviction that to be faithful to Jesus means resisting fragmentation in the body of Christ. And we have not nurtured practices that would serve Jesus’ prayer.
What might those practices look like? There’s no simple formula, of course, but it strikes me that they would include at least these three elements:
- Affirming that as part of the body, we need the other parts to be whole. Just as the lungs need the heart, so the social justice and holiness and evangelical and contemplative parts of the church all need each other. And for the body to be healthy, there needs to be regular blood and oxygen flow, nerve signals connecting the various parts, and a constant interaction and exchange throughout the body. We need to spend time with each other and learn to know each other well enough to be able to genuinely value each other, affirm each other and learn from each other.
- Creating a culture in which all parts can share openly the truth we feel God has given us without fear, while also being quick to acknowledge with humility that no one but God has all the truth. This kind of exchange makes it possible to help each other grow into greater knowledge of God’s will.
- Practicing loving each other like Jesus loves us. This will take very concrete shape, like sharing with each other, serving each other and listening to each other. Loving each other like Jesus loves us will require considerable patience. It will not look like using dominating power to get our way.
Alan and Eleanor Kreider challenge us as Mennonites to pray with Jesus that his disciples “may all be one” and to do it often. It is no secret that some Mennonite Church USA congregations and conferences may leave our denomination to start a new fellowship. Even if that seems inevitable, we should all start to join Jesus in praying this prayer. All groups will need to learn to deal with the differences that remain among themselves if they are not to split again over new issues in a few short years. But perhaps fragmentation is not inevitable. Who knows, if we pray with Jesus fervently and often, perhaps God will melt us and mold us and fill us and open creative new ways for us to be church together – so that the world may know that Jesus was indeed sent by God. Will you accept this invitation?